Elephant and Castle: A Community Fights Back

It is time for Labour in local government to send a message to the profiteering development industry that our communities are not for sale.

In January the plan put forward by private property developer DeLancey to demolish and rebuild the Elephant and Castle shopping centre failed to gain approval from Southwark Council’s planning committee… but confusingly, after an eight hour meeting running into the small hours of the morning, it also failed to be rejected.

And so six months later, here we go again as a revised plan is being brought forward for the site in July.

The original plan was deeply flawed. Although there is a broad consensus that a regeneration of the built environment at the Elephant could be a good thing, the plan proposed by Delancey offered only 33 social homes out of a total of 979. It left the fate of hundreds of BAME small traders in jeopardy and risked the extinction of one of the country’s most important bingo halls, vital for the trade that provides an affordable leisure activity for, on the whole, retired working class communities both here in south London and across the country.

So what’s changed and why does Delancey feel its proposal is worth another look?

Some positive steps have been taken by the developer, which is expecting to profit to the tune of £153 million from the development. Some space has been secured on the retail park for the future re-provision of bingo. There has been an increased offer for local traders and an increase in affordable retail space, although it should be mentioned that the local business group representing traders in the current shopping centre, Latin Elephant, are still resolutely against the proposals as they stand. The developers have retained their earlier commitment to the construction of a new campus for the London College of Communication, keeping a student community in the heart of our borough, and the frankly pathetic offer of 33 social homes has been more than tripled to 116. On the face of it, Delancey seems to have played a blinder, particularly in the context of its claim to local residents in January that the proposals then were the best the developer could possibly achieve due to ‘economic viability’.

The reality however is quite different and as we know appearances often flatter to deceive. The offer for re-provisioned bingo still has not been signed ‘in blood’ with the current provider. Small traders are still up in arms with regard to the retail offer and are concerned that the Latin American business community at the Elephant and Castle may literally be put out of business overnight. Their current leases expire in September and there is still no clarity around their future. And perhaps the most important aspect of all, the tenure mix of housing being offered by Delancey at the Elephant still falls short of Southwark council’s requirement for any scheme to be 35% ‘affordable’, half of which must be at social rents.

On top of this the additional social housing proposed, although undoubtedly a positive development compared to the original plan, has been secured by a mixture of going cap in hand to the Mayor of London for funds and by reducing the number of ‘intermediate’ housing in the rest of the mix to compensate for Delancey’s loss in future rental income. A significant proportion of the ‘affordable’ housing will now be targeted at those earning £60,000-£90,000 per year. The average income of residents in the Walworth area which encompasses the Elephant is £14,000. Oh, and of those 116 social homes, 42 of them are still subject to a final economic viability assessment.

So in fact Delancey has done little to nothing to improve the scheme and as a consequence is expecting London’s taxpayer and the future residents of the Elephant to make up the difference. And it has still failed to reach even the minimum expectations of the local authority and the local community. This is nothing short of disgraceful.

This scheme is important for a number of reasons, the first being that it will change the face and the complexion of the Elephant for the foreseeable future. As a community and as the political administration in Southwark, Labour must ensure that change embodies the fundamental socialist values we seek to govern with. But perhaps more importantly this proposal at the Elephant is the first major proposal in an evolving trend amongst developers to change their regeneration programmes from build-to-sale to build-to-rent. Across Southwark tens of thousands of properties are being planned for the rental market and so it is absolutely crucial that as a local authority we send the message that our policies exist for a reason and are not up for debate with developers, no matter how many sweeteners they throw in to any proposals. If as a council we are willing to accept that one of the capital’s biggest developers cannot meet our absolute minimum requirements on building affordable and social housing in zone 1 Elephant and Castle, in one of the most inflated property markets in the world, when in the future will we ever be able to enforce them? If DeLancey can’t make the Elephant work, what can it make work?

And what’s more, with the prospect of a Labour government in the near future growing, it is time for Labour in local government to send a message to the profiteering development industry that our councils need to be taken seriously and that our communities are not for sale. The need for affordable and social housing has never been greater and so must our resolve be to see it delivered in our communities.

That is why I am opposing the Elephant development, why I urge Southwark Planning committee members to object to the proposals and why I call on local residents and my fellow Labour councillors to speak out against this plan.